Meteors scratch the sky
Despite what you read online, it is possible to think of meteor watching as one of the most boring things you can do with the night sky. No cosmic connection, no postulating about the origins of the Universe, no understanding of what dark matter might entail. When we look for meteors, we are in our own celestial backyard. We usually do not even use a telescope or binoculars; it’s just sitting on a comfortable lawn chair and looking up at the sky. Even if we spot a shooting star as bright as the brightest of stars, it is only a large speck of dust that is probably only a few dozen miles above our lawn chair.
So why bother with watching meteors at all? Actually, it is because they are so close, so local, that makes this activity unique. A meteor may be a large speck of cosmic dust, but it strikes the Earth’s upper atmosphere at a velocity of 40 miles per second. And that is precisely what I saw, 44 times, on the beautiful night of August 12, 2023.
That night began with the usual thickness of clouds, typical of the Arizona summer monsoon. But the clouds rapidly dissipated. Instead of clouds, stars began to appear. Well before midnight, I was out with Eureka, my 12-inch diameter telescope with which I would complete 2 hours of comet hunting before the night ended. One hour before midnight, another before dawn. In between, I counted my 44 meteors, one of which is in the accompanying picture.
The Perseids of 2023 were a very good meteor shower, but not the best. In November of 2001, Wendee and I were in the Australian outback during the peak of that year’s Leonid meteor shower. We gathered on the shore of a dry lake bed and watched carefully as Leo the lion reared its handsome head above the eastern horizon. Then silently and swiftly, a bright shooting star appeared in the east, made its way across the sky, then slowly vanished in the west. One watcher said it all: “This trip was worth it!” A few minutes later, a second meteor did almost the same thing. After that the meteors came thicker and more often until, at around three in the morning, they suddenly began pouring out the sky at the rate of about one meteor per second. One observer even saw a meteor after the Sun rose.
What caused this burst of shooting stars? It appears that they originate from a comet. In December 1865 and January 1866, that comet was discovered by the German Wilhelm Tempel and Horace Tuttle of the United States. Because its orbit was identical to the orbits of the meteors, it was subsequently identified as the “parent comet” of the Leonid meteor stream. Moreover, because the comet passes close to Earth every 33 years, it was connected to the great meteor “storms” of 1833 and 1866.
In a similar way, Comet Swift-Tuttle, discovered in 1862 by the Americans Louis Swift and Horace Tuttle, was determined to be the parent comet of the Perseid meteors. As I watched them that unforgettable night, I was struck by the awe these tiny specks can generate as they race through our atmosphere. I was struck also by the wonder they generated in my mind: these always welcome visitors from space invariably enchant my soul.
A final note: One night in 1833, when Abraham Lincoln was a young lawyer, a deacon friend pounded on his door and woke him. “Arise, Abraham,” he yelled. “The day of judgement has come.” Lincoln leapt out of bed and strode to a window, and he saw countless shooting stars.” Shortly after he became president, when several states left the union, Lincoln told this meteor story to some visitors. As he watched the falling stars in wonder, he also saw that the familiar constellations were still there in the sky. “The world did not come to an end then,” he said wisely. “Nor will the Union now.”
A fellow citizen who lived at the same time as Lincoln, and who likely admired and respected him, was Carl Schurz, who would be elected to the U.S. Senate a decade later. On April 18, 1859, on the eve of the American Civil War, he gave a lecture in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. He said:” Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you will reach your destiny.”